Jacob Kassay's maximised minimalism

By Mike Brennan

Jacob Kassay, Los Angeles, 2011

With Jacob Kassay's acclaimed silver canvases achieving ever more scintillating prices at auction, their must-have allure is behind one of the best-known success stories in recent art.

Yet surprisingly few have stopped to consider the full extent of Kassay's production to date, or - more crucially - his credentials as the art world's latest supremo.

In fact, Jacob Kassay's practice is driven by a hugely intelligent, almost evasively subtle infrastructure of recurring themes, oppositions and contradictions: an art historical ref-fest which, despite the clarity of its various quotations, confounds expectation to become a highly personal, idiosyncratic body of concerns.

Given the familiarity of his silver-plate paintings, however, it's worth reiterating their formal and conceptual characteristics since, as will be seen, similar preoccupations recur throughout Kassay's work.

Jacob Kassay, silver paintings

Resembling a cross between monochrome painting and minimalist sculpture (a reading made more cogent by the latter's early focus on industrial process and materials) the appearance of the silver canvases is mediated by various ambiental factors: changes in light; the reflected gallery space and its occupants; even the electro-plating process itself.
Note 1

As many have pointed out, these works are essentially interactive, their diffused metallic sheen replicating and animating the spaces in which they are presented.

But although often referred to as mirror-like they are far from perfect reflectors, possessing a patina more akin to lightly polished steel.

Jacob Kassay, precedents and parallels: Donald Judd

While this affords them some resemblance to minimalist sculpture by artists such as Donald Judd (left), their uneven surface (occasionally rendered more irregular through the addition of 'collage' elements such as lengths of string) negates the precise uniformity demanded by such a precedent.
Note 2

The performative nature of the paintings is augmented by Kassay's emphasis on fluid forms of display. Canvases can be hung on walls or stacked horizontally on the floor; they can serve as backdrops, or define architectural space.

Again, however, such flexibility and multiplicity of purpose defies the autonomous objecthood sought by pioneers of minimalism and colour field painting. While consistently respectful of the heritage he appears to adopt, Kassay fundamentally undermines its ethos, imbuing his referents with layers of complexity that not only usurp the closed-circuitry of minimalist ideology, but goes far beyond even the more emotionally-driven arena of later, post-minimal art.


Dancing with the past: collaboration and choreography

Jacob Kassay

Kassay's quest to imbue apparently reductive visual production with a startling abundance of meaning was made particularly clear by a 2011 show at Los Angeles' L & M Arts in which the gallery space was transformed into something resembling an ersatz dance studio (left and page top).

This spare installation, carefully designed by Kassay specifically for the space, evokes clear parallels with the discipline of choreography: shared concerns such as sequence, rhythm, precision and performance are neatly encapsulated by a pun on the word 'studio' and its reference both to an area for dance rehearsal and an artist's workplace.

A wooden 'ballet barre' positioned beneath a large, rumpled, silver work on paper reflects not only viewers, but 'dancers' grouped around the walls. These modestly sized monochromatic diptychs in blush pink, white and smokily scorched canvas suggest glimpses of silk, shadow and flesh: the kind of blocky impressions which, if dancers were really whirling in the room, might actually be glimpsed in Kassay's imperfect mirrors.

This experience of the space as metaphor is accompanied by a highly specific series of references to the history of painting itself.


Jacob Kassay's maximised minimalism: next >


1. In order for the silver deposits to adhere to the canvas during the electro-plating process, the surface is pre-prepared with paint, resulting in textures which the thin layer of silver subsequently reveals.

Untreated fabric, however, is burnt by the oxidising metal, resulting in darkened areas flecked with minute speckles of silver deposit.

Many of Kassay's silver 'monochromes' show evidence of such scorching; the marks vary in intensity, creating a wide range of hues that often intermingle with the silver itself.

Kassay has also made use of entirely unprimed canvases to produce completely burnt works in which only tiny traces of silver are visible.

Jacob Kassay, precents and referents

While Kassay's application of electroplating techniques to painting is, in fact, entirely unique, many relevant precursors exist, including Yves Klein's Fire Paintings, Rudolf Stingel's silvered surfaces, Gerhard Richter's Mirror Works and the rarely cited, but important, use of silver foil and paint by Warhol across various mediums including his 'Silver Liz', above.

Yet crucially, none of these referents attain quite the same degree of conceptual complexity as Kassay's literally transformative works.

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2. Kassay has made it clear that his intention was always to create a work which, while inevitably taking on characteristics of sculpture, had to be clearly identifiable as painting: "In the first set of paintings I did, I plated the edges, too - but those appeared to be too sculptural on the wall".

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